Electronic cigarettes, “vaporizers,” or “e-cigs” are gaining in popularity with individuals who have traditionally smoked tobacco. They’re supposedly cleaner, less bothersome to others and are allowed in many places that cigarettes and smoke-producing tobacco is not. People can often be seen using them indoors, for example, when cigarettes have all but been banned from public spaces—even outdoors—in several states. But it’s not all sunshine and vapor-made rainbows for e-cigs, at least not yet, according to this article in Manufacturing Business Technology online. The industry for e-cigs is flooded with lawsuits, and e-cig manufacturers are left clamoring for patent attorneys with big tobacco companies claiming copyright infringement for the handheld electronic cigarettes.
Imperial Tobacco, “the world’s fourth largest cigarette company by market share, filed nine lawsuits in a U.S. federal court” against no less than eleven e-cig manufacturers, claiming intellectual property infringement with the new technology. With the MBT magazine calling the lawsuit a “semi-patent troll situation,” trademark specialists looking into the circumstances might also see the claim as a little iffy, with Imperial Tobacco launching its own e-cigarette only weeks before filing the lawsuit and not having invented the technology itself. Imperial Tobacco did buy “the original e-cig patents from Dragonite International last year for $75 million.” The amount for requested damages from the smaller, e-cig manufacturers wasn’t disclosed.
One of the electronic cigarette manufacturers is also finding itself in hot water and in need of good lawyers over trademark issues with Zippo Manufacturing Company—that maker of the blue-flame butane lighters. Lorillard markets its own e-cigs as “blu,” and Zippo’s product is called BLU. Lorillard may indeed be in trouble on this one, at least according to patent attorneys commenting on the case.
But that’s not all for the e-cig industry, either. The flavors that make electronic cigarettes more palatable are getting sticky with suits from more than one corner. General Mills Inc. and Girl Scouts of the USA are both directing their patent attorneys to file suits with e-cig manufacturers if noncompliance with the cease-and-desist letters sent to several companies persists. Some of the e-cig manufacturers are using names like Thin Mint and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, flavors that Girl Scouts and General Mills say are protected by copyright. The e-cigs companies have been using such names of the flavored liquid nicotine “because they conjure up very specific flavors in buyers’ minds, leading to increased sales,” a situation where they would seem to be profiting from the branding work already done by General Mills and Girl Scouts.
And while e-cigs are not as heavily regulated as tobacco, they likely soon will be. The industry reached $2 billion in sales last year, and all these lawsuits “could just be growing pains as companies try to carve out niches in consumer spending.” Parallel industry giants like General Mills or Imperial Tobacco aren’t willing to let go of their corner of the market that easily. And they may not have to. Having all that revenue means more resources to hire better patent attorneys. Sorry e-cig companies, as new kids on the block, you may be in for a ride.